Thursday, April 3, 2014

Killing Trail by Charles Allen Gramlich, 2010

Review & Interview

Under a false dawn they dumped the girl in my yard.

Killing Trail by Charles Allen Gramlich, writer and professor from Louisiana, United States, is a collection of western short stories including a flash fiction piece, and much more. Each of the four stories is a traditional western about cowboys and desperadoes, vengeance and gunfights, courage and honour, land grab and pretty women.

If Lane Holland pursues the man who nearly raped and killed the woman he loved in ‘Killing Trail,’ the flagship story, Josh Allen Boone overcomes betrayal by a woman and fights back to clear his name of a murder he did not commit in ‘Showdown at Wild Briar.’ And if Davy Bonner narrowly escapes ambush and helps the lovely Megan Cross defend her ranch in ‘Powder Burn,’ a gang of fearless and dangerous outlaws take bullets but make the villagers bite the dust in ‘Once Upon a Time with the Dead,’ the flash fiction piece.

In the telling of these action-packed stories, Charles acknowledges the influence of Louis L’Amour, one of his favourite authors, whose characters—“alone and a bit lonely” and “who did what was right”—are reflected in his own. There is little description of the characters but you can picture what Holland, Boone, and Bonner would be like, through their brave deeds and moral soundness. And so quick is the narrative pace that you'd think Charles wrote the stories sitting in the saddle and riding on the trail to Wyoming.

Killing Trail comes in a package of goodies that has more than just these stories. For example, there is a first-person vignette ‘Quint Gives ‘em Hell’ from an unpublished novel that I liked very much, particularly how it ends. The character is influenced by L’Amour and tells about a showdown between two parties of cowboys on the range. It is a tale of great integrity. In the interview I have asked Charles why he did not include it in the main collection.

The surprise package also includes an appreciation of Louis L’Amour and an essay titled A Wild West of Your Own’ in which we are told about the fascinating history behind Fort Smith, Arkansas, and the eighty-six men who were hanged there, thanks to a particularly notorious judge known as the ‘Hanging Judge.’

Killing Trail is a western at its lucid and entertaining best. My only complain is that there are only three stories and the flash fiction piece. This collection deserved a few more. A Kindle edition of the book is available at Amazon. You can also read about the author’s other published works here.

Now, without further ado, I hand over this space to Charles…


‘The soul of the writing experience
for me is to tell myself stories’

Charles Allen Gramlich spoke to the 3Cs in an email interaction which is split into three parts: the book, the characters, and the author.

Photograph provided bv the author.

THE BOOK

Prashant C. Trikannad: Charles, you have dedicated Killing Trail to Louis L’Amour who made you love the west and inspired you to write westerns. Can you talk about L’Amour’s influence in your reading and writing of westerns and other fiction? 
Charles Allen Gramlich: I suspect there is always a certain amount of luck involved with how one writer becomes an influence on another. I was a voracious reader from early on, but because we lived out in the country I wasn’t able to get to the library very often. Fortunately, my brother-in-law, Roger James, was also a big reader. He lived within walking distance so I often went to his house to borrow books. He was a big L’Amour fan and had lots of his works. I read them and loved them. I wonder sometimes, though, about what would have happened if Roger had more Zane Grey or Max Brand books. Would I now be a bigger fan of those writers? For whatever reason, L’Amour was there when I needed him and his work resonated strongly with me—first as a reader, and later as a writer myself.

What are some of the L’Amour highpoints in this collection of short stories?
L’Amour wrote most often about characters who were alone and a little bit lonely. He wrote about characters who did what was right even when faced with heavy odds. Growing up on a farm located six miles from the nearest town, I could appreciate those feelings. The heroes in L’Amour’s novels are also hard workers, courageous, and respectful of others, but they aren’t willing to be pushed around. These are the same kind of values I was taught by my parents. L’Amour’s heroic characters also have a reverence for the land and its beauty, and this was something I felt as well. These are the kinds of things I tried to put into the stories in Killing Trail.

Which are your favourite novels by Louis L’Amour? Do you think he is popular among the new and younger generation of readers of westerns?
My favourite novel by L’Amour is To Tame a Land, about a young boy named Ryan Tyler growing to manhood in the west and becoming a lawman. I reread this book every couple of years. Some other favourites are The Man Called Noon, about a man who loses his memory, Flint, about a gunfighter who only has a few months to live, and The First Fast Draw, which is about the invention of the “fast draw” and the real life figure of Cullen Baker.

I don’t know how popular L’Amour is among younger folks. I’m sure he’s not as popular as he was to my generation, but L’Amour deals with timeless topics so I doubt he’ll ever disappear entirely.

While I read Killing Trail in two sittings and enjoyed it immensely, I wanted to read more adventures. Why did you stop at only four short stories? Can we expect a second edition with more number of stories?
I tend to be a slow writer, and there aren't a lot of markets for western short stories. I don’t typically write more than about ten to twelve stories a year, and most of those are intended for the much more numerous fantasy or horror markets. I love westerns, though, and over the years had accumulated a few stories. I decided to publish them now because if I waited to write a full book’s worth of tales it might be several more years before those were done. I’m currently working on a trilogy of western tales about a gunfighter named Gabriel. When those are done I’ll probably publish them first as an ebook, like with Killing Trail, but then will combine those stories and the Killing Trail tales into a print edition.

You have compared the fourth story, Once Upon a Time with the Dead, a flash fiction piece, to the Desperado movies. I also found shades of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, albeit with a twist in the tale. Did that occur to you as well?
I actually didn’t think about the High Plains Drifter connection, but I can certainly see a similarity in setting, and even in the revelation of who the ‘Drifter’ really is. It hadn't occurred to me before but I have seen High Plains Drifter many times so I bet there is some influence there. Good observation on your part.

Charles, I liked all the stories but I liked the first-person vignette ‘Quint Gives ‘em Hell’ from your unpublished novel even more. Did you think of expanding it and including it in the collection?
As you mentioned, that’s a piece from an unpublished novel. It’s from the first book I ever wrote. Several years back I sat down to reread that old novel and see if I could polish it up for publication. Unfortunately, there were so many things wrong with the book that I realised it would be easier just to write a new novel than to fix the old one. That doesn’t mean I might not turn sections of it into stories. That’s what I did with the title piece from the collection. The story ‘Killing Trail’ is a revised scene from that novel with a new beginning and an ending added to it. The same could happen for ‘Quint Gives ‘em Hell.’ In fact, now you've got me thinking!

How and when did you think of adding the historical essay titled ‘A Wild West of Your Own’ about Fort SmithArkansas, and the eighty-six hangings that took place within its walls in the second-half of the 19th century? 
Even though I grew up about thirty miles from Fort Smith, I never knew until my late teens that it had been as wild and wooly as the boomtowns of the west I’d read about in L’Amour’s books. My first introduction was when Roger James started telling me about Isaac Parker, the ‘Hanging Judge.’ Roger loaned me a book called Winding Stair, which was set in the Fort Smith area and was written by Douglas C. Jones, who grew up in Arkansas. I never thought to write up any of my impressions of Fort Smith, though, until Richard Prosch (http://archive.is/qiZfE) asked me to do so for a feature on his blog called ‘My Personal West.’ I thought the piece fit nicely in the Killing Trail collection.

THE CHARACTERS

The initial three stories are essentially about revenge, as three young men set out to avenge the wrong done to them and to those they loved. As a leitmotif in westerns, do you think it’ll ever lose its relevance?
I think revenge is a motive/emotion that everyone understands. It’s as old as “An Eye for an Eye.” Also, at their heart the best revenge stories are really about justice. Someone has been wronged and there is no one but the hero to make it right. I value a “fair” world but the real world is seldom fair. At least in fiction we can see that justice is done. I personally tend to enjoy revenge stories, although I don’t want the person taking revenge to become as bad as those he or she is seeking to punish. That takes us into anti-hero territory. Revenge is certainly a very old trope, and one that has been featured in many other genres besides westerns. I don’t think it’ll die out as a theme anytime soon.

Were there any outside influences to the three characters of Lane Holland, Josh Allen Boone, and Davy Bonner?
There were. The character of Lane Holland is probably closest to my own personality, although I was never so tough or competent. The original version of that story was written when I was barely eighteen so I put a lot of myself into it. My son, Josh Allen Gramlich, is actually the model for Josh Allen Boone, although as far as I know my Josh has never had quite such an adventure. The story came about from imagining my son in those circumstances. Davy is different. I certainly wasn’t much like him when I was young. Davy is much more extraverted and socially adept. I always admired people like that so I imagine there’s some “wish fulfillment” going on in that story.

Who are some of your favourite characters in western novels?
Wow, there are so many. I loved the whole ‘Sackett’ thing that L'Amour did, where he wrote stories about a bunch of different members of his fictional Sackett family. He sort of told the grand story of the west through their eyes. Ed Gorman has a series of books about a great character named Guild. Guild is an older man, more mature than most of L’Amour’s heroes or the characters in Killing Trail. As I've gotten older myself I've come to appreciate those types. Will Henry created a great character named John Clayton, who appeared in his very fine book called No Survivors. Clayton was a Confederate soldier who was later adopted into an Indian tribe. He was present at the battle of Little Big Horn. Robert B. Parker created two great western characters named Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch for his excellent trilogy, AppaloosaResolution and Brimstone. Another favourite character is Judge Earl Stark (Stark’s JusticeThe Hawthorne Legacy, etc.), created by James Reasoner (www.jamesreasoner.net). My favourite historical western character would have to be Cole Younger, with Doc Holliday a close second.

THE AUTHOR

Charles, what does writing mean to you? How would you describe the experience of writing?
As long as I can remember I've relied on my imagination to entertain me. I’m never bored because I can always disappear into daydreams of adventure. Long before I started writing I simply “told” myself stories. As I got older and the stories got more complex, I found that I needed to record elements of them in order to keep them straight. Before I ever wrote an actual short story, I printed up lists of characters and the names of cities and planets that I invented. I first began putting stories on paper to capture them for myself, so that I could enjoy them again and again. It eventually occurred to me that others might enjoy such stories as well, and I began writing more for publication.

The soul of the writing experience for me, though, is to tell myself stories. The greatest experience in that process is “discovery.”  Every day when I’m writing I discover new characters, new settings, new creatures, and new adventures. It’s the closest thing to pure creativity that humans can experience, and I sure do enjoy it.

Can you take us through your fiction and nonfiction books? Can we expect more westerns from you?
I love to write in all different kinds of genres. My first novel was a thriller with horror and SF elements called Cold in the Light. It’s still the most complicated book I've ever written, plot-wise. Then I wrote the Talera fantasy Trilogy, Swords of TaleraWings Over Talera, and Witch of Talera. These would fall into a category called Sword & Planet fiction, which was first established by Edgar Rice Burroughs with his John Carter of Mars tales. A fourth book in that series, Wraith of Talera, is planned for publication this year, and there will be at least one more in the series, to be called Gods of Talera. I’m about a third of the way through that one. I've also written a Space Opera novella in the tradition of C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett, which is called Under the Ember Star. I had a lot of fun with that one.

Besides the novels, I have three collections of short stories out from Borgo Press, now an imprint of Wildside. These are Bitter Steel, which is a collection of heroic fantasy stories in the tradition of Robert E. Howard. Then there’s Midnight in Rosary, a collection of vampire and werewolf tales, with a ghost story thrown in. I always warn readers that there is a lot of sex in that anthology. Finally, there’s In the Language of Scorpions, which is a collection of horror stories, ranging from the super gory to Twilight Zone type twist-ending tales. Some of the stories in ‘Scorpions’ were written during the Splatter Punk movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those tales are very graphic, which was an element of that movement. I consider the primary splatter punk stories in that collection to be, ‘Razor White,’ ‘Splatter of Black,’ and ‘Wall of Love.’ They are brutal and not for the faint of heart.

As for nonfiction, I have Write With Fire, which collects most of my pieces on writing up until about 2009. I did a number of articles over the years for various writing magazines, and produced a regular column on writing for several years for an online newsletter called The Illuminata. A lot of these are ‘how to’ articles. I also collaborated on a textbook called Writing in Psychology with a couple of colleagues. We use it in our departmental writing course.

For the future, I'm working on the fifth Talera novel now, which will close out the original series. One way or another, I'll be writing a novel length western in the next year or so. I've got a lot of ideas and titles percolating in my head right now and am itching to get started.

How different is writing a western from your other interests like horror, science fiction, and fantasy? Which of these do you enjoy writing the most?
I’ve realised in the past five years or so that I’m first and foremost an “adventure” writer. Adventure is at the core of all my westerns, science fiction, and fantasy. They have many elements in common. Readers have told me that you can certainly see “western” elements in my Talera series, and I think they are present in Under the Ember Star as well. My horror fiction is a bit different. Cold in the Light is adventure horror, but many of my short horror stories are not. Much of the material from In the Language of Scorpions might be called “existential horror,” which is horror that arises out of the human experience of a hostile universe. In adventure fiction, good usually triumphs over evil. In existential horror, good usually loses because it is simply overwhelmed by forces that no human could possibly defeat. The “enemy” in existential horror is often not even evil in the usual human sense. It is simply indifferent to humanity. Lovecraft is often described as writing existential horror, but the category as a whole is far broader than that.

Can you briefly take us through your writing process for both short stories and novels? Which of the two is more satisfying?
Short stories start with me from several different places. A title or scene may pop into my head—or even a single evocative phrase. For example, the following sentence occurred to me years ago on my commute: “She had the lips that Satan dreamed of in his long fall to hell.” That phrase then turned into a story called ‘Thief of Eyes.’ Once an idea takes hold, I usually type out a quick rough draft of the piece, which then goes through multiple revisions until I’m finally satisfied with it. The first ending I come up with is usually discarded in favor of something that twists the tale more dramatically.

While stories often come to me by accident, novels start with intent. I decide I’m going to write a novel and then spend quite a bit of pre-writing work figuring out the main characters, settings, and opening scenes. By the time I’m ready to go I know the beginning and have a good idea of the general ending. Then I write my way toward that ending. Often, the ending does get modified as I move along through the book.

For me, short stories are generally a lot more fun. Because I’m a relatively slow writer, I can finish a short story in a reasonable amount of time and see the fruits of my labour. Novels are not only longer, but much more complicated. The process of putting words on paper isn’t harder for novels, but they take a lot more planning. Except for Swords of Talera, I've never written a novel where I didn’t get the feeling somewhere in the middle that it just wasn’t going to work. Most other writers say they experience the same thing and you just have to push on through. That’s certainly what I've found.

To summarise it, when I finish a short story I’m usually exhilarated; when I finish a novel I’m usually exhausted.

Despite that, there are some tales that just can't be told as short stories. I do like writing novels because of the greater scope they allow you. I know I'm going to suffer for that scope, though.

What kind of books do you read, in what categories, and who are some of your favourite writers?
I read just about everything, although westerns, fantasy, and horror make up the greatest part of what I consume for pleasure. I also read a lot of nonfiction, mostly science related. I try to read about 100 books a year and there is always so much more I miss out on. Over my entire lifetime, my favourite fiction writers would have to be Louis L’Amour, Ray Bradbury, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and John D. MacDonald. Closely behind these would be C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and Kenneth Bulmer. In the last fifteen years, I've been reading a lot of Joe Lansdale, James Reasoner, O’Neil De Noux, David Gemmell, Dean Koontz and C.S. Harris. If I look up on my shelves, I also see a lot of books by David C. Smith, Sidney Williams, Will Henry, Andre Norton, and E.C. Tubb. I’m sure there are many more I’m forgetting. In the last two years I've been reading quite a bit of stuff by Bernard Lee DeLeo, and by the Beat to a Pulp writers.

Thank you, Charles.

31 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Chris, thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      Delete
  2. Thanks, man. I'm glad you liked Killing Trail and I sure appreciate the kind comments.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Charles, you're most welcome. I love westerns and I enjoyed reading KILLING TRAIL. I hope you'll write more westerns in future.

      Delete
  3. Excellent questions and nicely developed answers. I especially like reading writers' thoughts about Louis L'Amour as he was something of a phenomenon, who could take deep hold not of just readers' imaginations and emotions, but their most cherished beliefs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ron, thank you on both counts. Charles' informed views on Louis L'Amour and his work is prompting me to read some of L'Amour's novels, especially the ones I haven't read.

      Delete
  4. Nice interview. I especially liked the part about the different process in writing short stories and books. Very interesting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tracy, thank you for the kind words. The entire credit for the interview goes to Charles who answered each of the questions in depth. I always like reading about writers at work, as in THE PARIS REVIEW interviews.

      Delete
  5. Good review and interview. Thanks! Now I wonder how much traveling in the West Charles has done.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sage, thank you very much. Whenever I read westerns I picture myself in that time and place as a spectator. I'm fascinated by the wild west and the frontier.

      Delete
  6. Sage, I've been to Texas a lot, both east Texas and the middle part of the state, which are very different environments. I lived for a while in Austin and got out into the hinterlands there quite a lot. I've also been out to Arizona and New Mexico, spent some time in Sedona where many western movies have been filmed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Charles, we got to get you up into the intermountain regions--Nevada and Utah and the AZ strip! I miss living out there.

      Delete
  7. Great post Prashant, about time I read something else "Western", so I'll check it out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Col, thanks very much! KILLING TRAIL would be a good start to reading westerns. I look forward to reading your reviews of these books too.

      Delete
  8. Terrific post and interview - thank you Prashant (and Charles).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Sergio, I'm glad you liked the entire post. I intend to make interviews of contemporary writers a regular feature. Charles' was only the second one.

      Delete
  9. nice....i grew up reading l'amour...my father in law loved him and had a basement full of his books...i read them and would pass them on to my dad....cool to look in on your process just a bit too....will check this out charles...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Brian, I learned a few things about the writing process from the interview with Charles. I wasn't as influenced by Louis L'Amour as I was by Oliver Strange (Sudden) and George G. Gilman (Edge). L'Amour's FLINT is my favourite novel though I confess to not having read all his books.

      Delete
  10. I recently read the Hopalong Cassidy books that L'Amour did and found them pretty good. I know he wasn't all that happy with them because the publisher wanted the TV character more than the original Hopalong. He even denied writing them for a long time but I liked 'em pretty well.

    ReplyDelete
  11. When I hear the name Louis L'Amour, I think of my grandfather-in-law because he read L'Amour and westerns by the other greats every day of his life, smoking camels by his old furnace (in the living room), the pages turning with regularity. He often would burn his fingertips, so engrossed was he in the story.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Patti, Your grandfather-in-law sounds much like my brother-in-law. Or come to think of it, me. Except for the cigarrettes in my case.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Patti, our love for books (comics and cartoons in my case) is so often handed down to us by our parents and grandparents.

      Delete
  13. Nice interview, Charles. The insights on your thoughts and writing process were illuminating. Your main career comes first, but more fiction would certainly be nice(happy to hear the new Talera is almost here).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Randy, thanks for visiting and commenting. Charles has been very generous with his interview. I hope to read his Talera series in near future.

      Delete
  14. col2910, Much appreciated. hope you enjoy.

    ReplyDelete
  15. You should go back and rewrite that one story, Charles. Sometimes it pays off.
    From your description, sounds like I would really appreciate the value of L'Amour's characters as well.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Alex,I think I probably will at some point. I keep all that stuff in files where I can return to it if I need or want to. I imagine you'd appreciate L'Amour's characters. Your own have many of the same qualities.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Alex, I agree about that one story, and I appreciate your visit and comment.

      Delete